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Crew finding ‘magical’ duo between Zelarayan, Zardes

The Black & Gold offensive catalysts are off to a flying start.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, 11 of 16 Columbus Crew SC defeats came by a single goal. And while some of that came down to being unlucky, a number of times — like against D.C. United in late April or Toronto FC in the final game of the year — it came from “a bit of magic,” as head coach Caleb Porter put it, from the opposition.

The Crew, due to injuries, player turnover, a coaching change and other reasons, didn’t have that magic when it mattered. There wasn’t enough top-level quality in the team and it cost the Black & Gold during one of the team’s most disappointing seasons in recent memory.

But in a small sample size in 2020, it appears the Crew has that something special, and this was evident in Saturday’s 4-0 win against FC Cincinnati in the team’s first game of the MLS is Back Tournament.

After a 1-0-1 start to the Major League Soccer season before the pause, Columbus got a resounding result in Group E — remember, group games count toward the regular season standings. But what was most impressive was, despite a four-month layoff, the Black & Gold’s attacking front two of forward Gyasi Zardes and playmaker Lucas Zelarayan didn’t miss a beat.

“Our goal was to pick up where we left off in this first match back,” Porter said of the long break on Saturday night. “In saying that, we also felt that we’ve gotten better, believe it or not, during these 126 days, even though we were off. We got better as a team.”

Signs of improvement against Cincinnati came at the offensive end of the field. After failing to win a game by more than two goals a year ago, the Crew earned a 1-0 victory against New York City FC to open the new season and managed a tough road point against the Seattle Sounders in a 1-1 draw in Game 2.

The 4-0 explosion to open MLS is Back was more what Porter hoped for, even if it came against a team that allowed 75 goals a year ago and is already on its second coach of 2020. What made the result better for the Black & Gold boss was his two key offensive pieces, Zardes and Zelarayan, were the impetus for the attack in the match.

“Players win games. There’s no doubt about it,” Porter said with Zardes and Zelarayan flanking him in the virtual postgame press conference. “I’ve always believed that. My role is to take the group and maximize the potential of the group, but players win games. These two guys on my right and left, they were exceptional today and it wasn’t a surprise.

After a bit of a back-and-forth start to the game, it was the Crew’s new No. 10 who opened the scoring just before the half hour mark. Zelarayan drew a free kick 20 yards from goal and the Argentine stepped up and curled a perfectly placed free kick over the wall, kissing off the post and into the net for the early 1-0 lead.

Columbus knows a thing or two about quality free kicks — ask Robert Warzycha or Federico Higuain — but this one from Zelarayan was among the best-taken attempts in MLS history.

This type of set play finish was one of the reasons why the Crew paid a club-record fee for Zelarayan. And while the remarkable finish may have gotten Black & Gold supporters off their couches, the goal did not surprise Porter.

“I called it to the coaches on the bench before he hit it because I’ve seen that goal on film a bunch of times,” the head coach said. “We’ve scouted this guy extensively and I’ve seen him make that play time and again. So it’s one of the reasons we signed him. He has the ability to change a game in a moment. He drew the foul and then he hits a dead ball.”

Before the non-existent fans at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports stopped cheering, the Crew found the back of the net again. This time, it came via a Zardes finish, thanks to a nifty pass from Youness Mokhtar, that gave the Black & Gold’s attacking duo each first-half goals for the first time in their short partnership.

The two weren’t done, however, combining for the third Columbus goal just after halftime. Despite being nearly 35 yards out from goal and not in an ideal crossing position, Zelarayan delivered a perfect ball over the head of Cincinnati defender Kendall Waston and on to the left foot of Zardes.

This type of chemistry between a striker and playmaker is important and the Black & Gold were happy to see it come together so quickly after four months of no game action.

“Our connection has been really good,” Zelarayan said of Zardes postgame. “From the first day I was here, I knew it would be important that we worked well together. He’s our goal scorer and my job is to help him score. We’ve been working a lot every day in practice and we try to be together as much as we can. My idea is to always look for him when I get the ball, so I was happy that I could assist him today. Hopefully we can keep this connection going.”

For Zardes, the two finishes were important. After getting off the mark in Columbus’ second game of the season, the forward wanted to shake the rust off quickly following the stoppage in play. After scoring 19 goals two years ago, Zardes’ second campaign with the Black & Gold saw him finish 13 times in five fewer matches. But there were certainly some misses — including against Cincinnati a year ago — that stand out.

In this game, Zardes was clinical, scoring his two goals on his only two shots. His positioning was spot on, making these finishes relatively simple ones.

It’s because of his improved finishing and continued work to pop up in right spots that led Porter to tell FOX Sports’ broadcast crew prior to the game that he believes Zardes should score 15 to 20 goals this season, and potentially set a new career high. Porter made it clear that this isn’t to put pressure on Zardes, something the striker doesn’t feel any way, just his belief in his player.

“I’m obviously highly motivated to keep working hard,” Zardes said. “You see the strikers in the league are starting to get plus 20 (goals), so I think it’s very important as a striker to set your goal for that and just try to get in the right spots. Like Coach said, as long as I’m getting service, I should finish the play. So I’m just going to keep working hard, like I always do, and strive to do that and get multiple goals.”

For the Crew, the win against FC Cincinnati was the near-perfect start to the MLS is Back Tournament after four months off. The Black & Gold controlled the game, limited FC Cincy’s opportunities and created plenty of their own chances.

But what is most pleasing to Porter and Columbus fans alike was the performance of Zardes and Zelarayan, the team’s primary finisher and chance creator, who were on fire and in sync throughout the opening match. After three games, Zelarayan has two goals and two assists, while Zardes is off the mark with three goals in as many games.

Because of this, the Crew is confident the team has those “magical” players that can change the games this year and earn results, as they did on Saturday.

“They both have quality. It was great to see both of them linking up,” Porter said. “They haven’t played together that long but it was nice to see the understanding with your 9 and 10, which is something that’s so important. And we’ll need them, obviously, to continue to make plays to help us win games. But it was good to see.”